Political News

Justice Department was unprepared for family separations but Jeff Sessions pushed it anyway, watchdog says

Posted January 14, 2021 12:15 p.m. EST

— Former Attorney General Jeff Sessions knew early on migrant families would be separated when the Trump administration implemented its controversial "zero tolerance" policy and still proceeded to push for the policy, according to a scathing report from the Justice Department inspector general released Thursday.

"[T]he Department's single-minded focus on increasing prosecutions came at the expense of careful and appropriate consideration of the impact that prosecution of family unit adults and family separations would have on children traveling with them and the government's ability to later reunite the children with their parents," the inspector general concluded.

Lawyers are still unable to reach the parents of 611 children who had been split from their families by US border officials between 2017 and 2018, according to a Wednesday court filing.

In 2018, the Trump administration announced the so-called "zero tolerance" policy, in which the Justice Department criminally prosecuted every adult accused of illegally crossing the border. Doing so resulted in the separation of families, including those with infants, some only a few months old, because children can't be kept in federal jail with their parents.

This week, Trump visited his signature border wall on the US-Mexico border, bookending his administration's focus on immigration. During a brief speech near the wall, Trump listed off a series of those policies, citing them as accomplishments and calling them "historic." He did not mention family separation.

But "zero tolerance" policy has come to encapsulate the lengths the Trump administration is willing to go to in order to deter migrants from coming to the US, regardless of their circumstances, and the disarray that ensues when agencies are unprepared.

One draft talking point prepared for Sessions ahead of a May 2018 White House meeting read: "An illegal alien should not get a free pass just because he or she crosses the border illegally with a child." The talking points also cited an initiative that led to the separation of approximately 280 families, saying that it "worked," even though it had generated concerns from prosecutors, judges and officials.

More than 5,000 families had already been separated at the US-Mexico border between 2017, when a pilot initiative kicked off, and 2018, when the policy was announced, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.

This story is breaking and will be updated.

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